Charles Darwin, 1809-1882

Charles Darwin, the discoverer of natural selection, was born at Shrewsbury. His grandfather was Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802, physician, radical, freethinker), his father Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, F.R.S. (1766-1848), and his mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795). After five years at Shrewsbury grammar school, Darwin studied medicine at Edinburgh University (1825-27) and then, with a view to the Church, entered Christ's College, Cambridge (1828). Even before he went to Cambridge, the young Darwin took numerous natural history excursions and delivered his first scientific paper.

It was at Cambridge that his biological studies began in earnest. He became acquainted with Professor Henslow who encouraged his interest in zoology and geology. In 1831 Darwin received his B.A. and shortly afterwards was recommended by Henslow as naturalist aboard the H. M. S. Beagle, then about to begin a scientific survey of South American waters.

Darwin sailed on 27 December 1831 and did not return to England until 2 October 1836. He visited Tenerife, the Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, Montevideo, Tierra del Fuego, Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, Chile, the Galapagos, Tahiti, New Zealand, Tasmania and the Keeling Islands. It was during this lengthy voyage that Darwin obtained an intimate knowledge of the flora, fauna, and geology of these distinct areas. By 1846 he had published several works on the geological and zoological discoveries of his voyage -- works that placed him in the front rank of mid-19th century scientists.

He formed a friendship with Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), was secretary of the Geological Society (1838-41) and in 1839 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In that same year he married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood (1808-1896). From 1842 he spent his time in Kent as a country gentleman among his gardens and conservatories. The practical knowledge he obtained (especially regarding the inter-breeding of plant species) was invaluable and his wealth allowed him to devote himself, despite ill health, to science.

At Kent he devoted his attention to the great work of his life -- the problem of the origin of species. After five years' work he allowed himself to speculate on the subject and drew up some short notes in 1842 which were enlarged into a series of conclusions in 1844. These conclusions were to become the principle of natural selection and the germ of Darwinian theory. Darwin delayed the publication of his findings.

In 1858 Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) sent home from the Malay Archipelago a memoir addressed to Darwin. It was an important memoir since it contained the main principle of his own idea of natural selection. Persuaded by Lyell and others, Darwin presented the Wallace memoir as well as his own conclusions to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858. Darwin then set to work on The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, which was published in November 1859. The Origin of Species was received throughout Europe with deepest interest as well as violent attacks. In the end, however, Darwin received recognition from almost all competent biologists. He then began to write a number of supplemental works including: The Fertilisation of Orchids (1862), The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication (1867), and The Descent of Man (1871). In this latter work, Darwin suggested that man descended from a hairy quadrumanous animal belonging to to the great anthropoid group, and related to the progenitors of the orangutan, chimpanzee, and gorilla.

A prolific author, Darwin also composed the following works: The Expression of the Emotions of man and Animals (1873), Insectivorous Plants (1875), Climbing Plants (1875), The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876), Different Forms of Flowers in Plants of the same Species (1877), The Power of Movement in Plants (1880), and The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the action of Worms (1881).

Darwin will be remembered as the leader of evolutionary biology. Although he was not the originator of the theory of evolution, nor even the first to apply the notion of descent to plants and animals, Darwin was clearly the first thinker to gain widespread acceptance among nineteenth century biologists.

Darwin died suddenly, 19 April 1882, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups within each class, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.